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Fearful of primary challengers, GOP lawmakers entrenched

WASHINGTON – What if they yield, even a little?

Call it GOP Primary Fear. A major hurdle to breaking the federal debt-ceiling impasse is the worry by House Republicans that they will invite primary election challenges from the right if they give ground to Democrats on the issue of higher tax revenues.

There’s even a verb for it: being “primaried.”

The challenger would not be a Democrat. It would be a fellow Republican, in a spring or summer primary that most voters would ignore. That could leave the field mainly to ideological die-hards, often with tea party ties and little appetite for compromise.

It’s the atmosphere that many House freshmen rode to victory last year, and that cost two GOP senators their party’s nomination.

“They talk about it all the time,” said Mike McKenna, a Republican lobbyist who closely follows the House and politics. If the House cuts a deficit-reduction deal with President Barack Obama, he said, “you’re probably going to see a lot of leadership guys get primaried,” along with rank-and-file Republicans. “It could be an all-time high.”

Such worries are a key reason the GOP-controlled House has refused so far to accept Obama’s debt-and-deficit overture, even though it includes budget concessions that many people never expected from a Democrat. Friday evening, after House Speaker John Boehner abruptly broke off the talks, an exasperated Obama declared: “One of the questions the Republican Party is going to have to ask itself is, ‘Can they say yes to anything?’ ”

Boehner blamed Obama for insisting on higher revenues. The package they were closing in on would have cut spending by $3 trillion over 10 years, and slowly started to trim Social Security and Medicare benefits. But to get it through the Democrat-controlled Senate, the deal also needed to include some increase in revenues from taxes aimed mainly at the wealthy, and generating up to $1 trillion over a decade.

That’s the needle Boehner can’t figure out how to thread. He’s been unable to persuade enough fellow Republicans to give just enough on higher revenues, or “tax hikes” – there will be a fierce fight, too, over definitions – to keep Senate Democrats from filibustering the bill to death.

Boehner must also reassure colleagues that they could survive primary challenges.

Obama confronted the issue Friday, at a forum in Maryland. Many House districts, he said, are drawn to be “so solidly Republican or so solidly Democrat that a lot of Republicans in the House of Representatives, they’re not worried about losing to a Democrat. They’re worried about somebody on the right running against them because they compromised. So even if their instinct is to compromise, their instinct of self-preservation is stronger … that leads them to dig in.”

Tea party activist Lee Bellinger recently urged colleagues to put lawmakers on notice “before the disease of Republican compromise infects Washington once again.” As early as mid-April, Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler told The Hill newspaper he was “getting emails by the hour from people talking about primary challenges” to Republicans who seek budget deals with Democrats.

Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker said Republican primaries are dominated by “the most ideological voters.” They “track votes and are unforgiving,” he said.


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